The Power of Protein – for Endurance?
Protein has long been perceived as a key nutrient for those who want to gain muscle, which is no surprise given the key role a higher protein intake plays in building bigger muscles. Whilst it is important for those wanting to gain muscle, power and endurance athletes can also take advantage of the benefits protein can provide.
Carbohydrates are traditionally the first nutrient thought of for endurance athletes and quite rightly given they provide the body with its most efficient fuel – glucose. But strategic protein intake is becoming a must for endurance athletes, who have generally been concerned that a higher protein intake will mean they become big and bulky, making them heavier and slowing them down. However, to gain significant muscle mass, the body needs a good weight training regime and an excess amount of calories. Just consuming protein alone, in the context of a balanced diet, won’t make us gain lots of extra muscle.
A recent example of an endurance athlete (and a great one at that) talking about the power of protein is Mo Farah. In a recent interview with the BBC, he talks about “maintaining a healthy balance between carbs and protein”
No matter what type of exercise is carried out – be it strength, power or endurance – the body needs to build new proteins, in order for muscles to grow, repair and adapt. This is a key part of training the body for the demands that our sports throw at it. Prolonged training can cause damage to the muscle which needs to be repaired and the muscle needs to adapt for the next sessions.
Proteins are made up of small building blocks called amino acids and there are some amino acids that are essential in the diet as the body cannot make them itself. The most renowned amino acid in sports nutrition is leucine, as this branched-chain amino acid ‘switches on’ muscle protein synthesis and is important for the body building new muscle.
Timing and amount
Of course, everyone has protein in their diet anyway. But the timing of protein intake, particularly for those training every day and even more so for those training more than once a day, can influence recovery and performance.
Recovery should start in the first 2 hours after finishing a session, particularly if you are training every day or more than once a day. The two hours after training are when the body is most open to building new muscle and restocking its carb stores, so it makes sense to take advantage of this!
In terms of amount, 0.3g protein per kg body weight should cover your needs. This generally works out around 20-25g protein.
Western diets mean we tend to eat most protein in the evening and least in the morning. Spreading it more evenly throughout the day, thereby regularly supplying the body with amino acids, can be beneficial. Easy ways to do this include adding eggs, beans or yoghurts (especially higher protein ones like Greek yoghurt) at breakfast time. See table below for servings
Type of protein
The quality of a protein depends on its amino acid make up. The highest quality proteins are generally animal proteins – those from dairy (including whey supplements), beef, chicken, fish and prawns, amongst others. Of course, proteins from vegetable sources – like lentil, beans and tofu – also contribute to the diet and it is unrealistic (and unhealthy!) to assume all our protein comes from meat and dairy.
However, the good thing with knowing the high quality of dairy, whey, meat and eggs is that this can be used strategically. Whey protein has been shown time and time again to promote building new muscle as it is rich in the muscle-stimulating amino acid, leucine, making it ideal for athletes after training and competition.
Of course, protein supplements are a personal choice. They do provide high quality protein at a time when the body is most responsive, appetite may be reduced or eating a steak is just not possible and in a convenient format.
- Protein is a key nutrient for all athletes to repair, grow and adapt their muslces
- Just having extra protein won’t make you big and bulky
- Aim to spread protein intake throughout the day to maximise the benefits
- Have 0.3g protein per kg body weight in the first 2 hours after exercise, particularly if you are training every day or more than once a day
- Protein supplements can provide a convenient source of high quality protein